On Trayvon Martin and the 20th Anniversary of the L.A. Riots

Could the trial of George Zimmerman spark violent civil unrest?

A man holds up a hoodie quoting slain teenager Trayvon Martin at a rally in Los Angeles, California, April 26, 2012.

A man holds up a hoodie quoting slain teenager Trayvon Martin at a rally in Los Angeles, California, April 26, 2012. (Photo: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

Matt Fleischer is a TakePart contributor who was awarded a Fund for Investigative Journalism grant for his series “Dangerous Jails.”

On April 29, 1992, in the hours after the acquittal of four white Los Angeles Police Department officers who had been captured on video beating black motorist Rodney King, African Americans in Los Angeles took to the streets in anger and set the city in flames. Was it a riot, a civil unrest, an uprising? Twenty years later there is no definitive answer. Some continue to see the response to the Rodney King beating as a righteous rebellion against racial injustice, others as opportunistic looting. Contextualizing the riots has become even more difficult in the post-Obama world. 

Unlike in the Rodney King trial, people of all races have rallied to Martin’s cause and have openly pressured law enforcement to step up their efforts.

Perhaps the most essential creative effort to make sense of the riots was actress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith’s “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992.” Smith interviewed upward of 300 Angelenos in the wake of the riots—including then-Police Chief Daryl Gates, L.A. gang members and a Korean woman whose store was looted and burned—and turned their words into a composite narrative that reverberates far beyond the simplistic black vs. white media portrait of the day.

The actress was in Los Angeles this week to read scenes from her play at the Robert F. Kennedy Community High School’s Cocoanut Grove Theater in Koreatown—an area hit hard by looters and arsonists during the chaos. The majority of the audience was composed of young black and Latino high school students, born years after the riots took place. The event posed an interesting sociological question: How does the Obama generation respond to a work depicting unrestrained racial conflict? Are these issues abstract intellectual fodder in today’s supposedly post-racial world?

The answer to that question was a resounding “no.” The first query Smith received from a student in a Q&A session was “how does the Trayvon Martin case relate to what happened in L.A. 20 years ago?”

“It’s very related,” Smith replied. “They are both justice plays, and this one [Martin’s] is still unfolding. And I’m sure people are getting ready in case these stories unfold similarly.”

What followed was a discussion between Smith and students on the possibility of a new riot surfacing from the trial of George Zimmerman. All were in agreement—this case has the potential to spark a national civil unrest.

A female Hispanic high school student, however, ended the debate by noting that, unlike in the Rodney King trial, people of all races have rallied to Martin’s cause and have openly pressured law enforcement to step up their efforts.

“The fear justice won’t be served is uniting people of all races,” she said.

It was a beautiful moment, and the girl received a healthy round of applause. The audiences’ idealistic response to the student’s eloquent notions of racial solidarity spoke to just how much Los Angeles has transformed in the past 20 years. The LAPD has gone from openly antagonizing the city’s black community with racial epithets, to becoming a model of big-city community policing. Los Angeles kids are not confronted with the same blatant racism their parents contended with back in the ’90s.

That doesn’t mean these kids have been raised in a bubble of racial harmony. For all the strides some Angelenos have made in the past two decades, the Internet makes it abundantly clear that much of America is progressing at a slow, ugly slog. This week, the Washington Capitols forward Joel Ward—an African American—scored the winning goal against the Boston Bruins in an overtime National Hockey League playoff elimination game. Hundreds of angry, presumed white hockey fans immediately flooded Twitter to slur Ward with one of Huck Finn’s favorite epithets.

Too many white people for comfort openly expressed their disappointment in the movie The Hunger Games on social media because one main character, Rue, was black. Her death in the film, they argued, carried less emotional weight because of her race.

Anyone who peruses the comment section of a Yahoo or YouTube story about Obama learns all they need to about the visceral race-based opposition to his presidency.

Los Angeles has largely healed the rifts torn open by the 1992 riots. But abject racism is never more than a mouse-click away in America. If justice isn’t served in the Trayvon Martin slaying, those online embers could very well be among the sparks that set off another round of fires. And this time, Los Angeles won’t be the only city burning. 

Will George Zimmerman’s trial ignite the fires next time? Or has America moved beyond violent racial polarization? Leave your thoughts in comments.

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